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Defense cuts are biggest political issue on California Marine base

  • Sacramento Bee
  • Published Monday, Oct. 29, 2012, at 11:23 a.m.

WENTYNINE PALMS – On Monday, six hours before the final presidential debate began, Danielle Wagner was rushing from class at the Copper Mountain College campus to get home to say goodbye to her husband. Again.

"He leaves today, actually," said Wagner, who is 21 and married to a six-year Marine veteran heading off on his third deployment, this time to Afghanistan. She will remain home, raising their 1-year-old child.

Like many in this Mojave Desert military town 50 miles northeast of Palm Springs, Wagner exudes support for the U.S. military. Her gray T-shirt says "Marines" in big black letters; her SUV bears a "Marine Wife" sticker.

And, like most people whose lives depend on Pentagon spending, she has paid close attention to the presidential election, especially when it comes to what President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney have to say about the military.

"I'm leaning toward Romney right now," Wagner said. "What I've seen so far of the debates, I like more of what Romney has had to say, his approach to stuff compared to Obama.

"And, honestly, the last four years Obama has not done anything that I've noticed. It's just gotten worse."

A few miles away, at a food pantry for needy families, Joe Matoush has a different view.

"If they really look at it, Obama's the better candidate," said Matoush, a 64-year-old Navy veteran who spent 20 years serving as a chaplain for Marine units. "To fall for a 'President Romney' isn't going to create 1 million jobs."

Their different takes stem largely from what each side believes about the other's views on military spending.

U.S. defense spending in the current fiscal year is about $520 billion, roughly the same as last year. As it stands, automatic budget cuts hammered out in Congress are scheduled to commence next year to trim up to $500 billion in Pentagon spending over the next decade. Political leaders are hoping for a bipartisan compromise to avert those cuts.

Romney has accused Obama of cutting Pentagon spending to the point that the military has been weakened. He has called for increased spending that includes a plan for building 15 new warships a year, including three submarines.

The president attacks Romney's positions as outdated, accusing him of pushing what would amount to a $2 trillion increase in defense spending that the Pentagon doesn't need or want.

Obama says Romney has yet to explain where he would find that money; the president says his own policies, by contrast, are forging a more efficient and modern military.

The two also have bickered over the policy in Afghanistan, with the president moving to pull all troops out by the end of 2014. Romney says Obama never should have publicized the withdrawal timeline, although at last week's debate he indicated that he also expected a pullout by the end of 2014.

Fewer Marines expected

In Twentynine Palms, home to the sprawling Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, where virtually all Marines train before heading to Afghanistan, voters on both sides of the debate hold strong views. As part of Obama's planned pullout, the Defense Department is moving to draw down the size of the Marine Corps from about 202,000 active duty members to 182,100.

Wagner worries that less spending on the military could make it more difficult for her husband and other Marines who want to make a career of serving in the Corps. In the past, re-enlistments were routine for Marines who wanted to stay in. But because of reductions in the size of the Corps, officials are being more selective.

"In the last year or two, some of the things Obama has tried to do have affected us greatly in terms of the draw-downs and things like that," she said. "Not necessarily right now, but in the long term. To re-enlist is a lot harder than it would have been."

Matoush, who served in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia during the first war with Iraq, says the time has come for America to rethink its spending priorities. He supports Obama, he said, because the president is pushing to spend more on domestic programs to help the poor and expand health care, even if it means more careful spending on the military side.

He concedes his opinion is controversial in town, but notes that he has some experience on the topic after serving in the first Gulf War.

"We were the very first boots on the ground, the 7th Marine Regiment," he said last week, as he volunteered at a food pantry at the Lutheran church, filling grocery bags for needy families. "I slept in holes in the desert many a night."

Matoush, a Chicago transplant who sports an Obama 2012 pin on his shirt pocket, retired from the Marine base in 1994 and settled in Twentynine Palms, partly because of the services available inside the base gates.

"Let's face it, I use the base facilities," he said. "I've got medical care through the military. It's a good deal."

But he added that he thinks the nation spends too heavily on the military and that the war in Iraq following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was misguided. In 2008, he organized anti-war protests in town that generated hate mail from around the nation.

"I got ostracized in this community," Matoush said, adding that many members of his congregation did not believe that he could support the troops and oppose the war at the same time.

Absentee ballots

The closely fought election will not turn on how residents vote in Twentynine Palms, where last time around Sen. John McCain won 2,494 votes to Obama's 1,731. But the votes cast inside the base, home to 29,500 military and civilian workers, may have a ripple effect in the home counties of Marines and family members sending in their absentee ballots.

That the issue of national defense is a chief factor in their views comes as no surprise in a community that owes its identity to the Marine Corps' largest base. The military is the largest employer in town, followed by the school district.

Red Marine Corps flags fly from flagpoles throughout town. Murals touting Marine victories from World War I to Desert Storm adorn the sides of buildings. Active duty military can get discounts at local restaurants, and virtually every passing vehicle has a distinctive, round decal honoring the Marine Corps.

"They're our neighbors here, I feel very strongly about that," said Mayor John Cole, who counts himself among the undecided voters that both Romney and Obama are courting in the final weeks of the campaign.

"I have a son and a grandson in the military, and of course when people start talking about drawing down the military, they're going to have strong feelings about that. From a community perspective and as a councilman, I have some concerns if they draw down, how that might impact us out here."

In recent years, that has not been a problem at the base, which encompasses 935 square miles of desert. About $550 million in construction has taken place in the last three years. Marines and on-base workers are the beneficiaries of a new exchange that offers tax-free groceries and the only Starbucks within 25 miles.

On the base, voting assistance officer Larry Ward encourages Marines to vote and provides information on deadlines and where to send ballots.

But the military is skittish about having active duty personnel speaking out in favor of candidates at campaign events, especially if they are in uniform or could have their opinions construed as official Corps endorsements. Marines are acutely aware of the case of Gary Stein, a Marine sergeant at Camp Pendleton who was discharged earlier this year after posting comments on his Facebook page considered disparaging toward the president.

Stein challenged the move in federal court, claiming he was being unfairly punished for exercising his right to free speech. His commanding officer, Col. Christopher Dowling, countered that by publicly criticizing the commander in chief, Stein had caused dissension in the ranks that set "a terrible example for junior Marines and has the very real potential to undermine the chain of command."

Richard Guerro, 30, a Marine instructor at the electronics schoolhouse on base, cited the case last week as he emerged from a dry cleaner where he had just dropped off his uniform.

He was careful in his comments, but said his personal views lead him to favor Romney at this point, mostly because of his plans for increasing military spending.

Guerro joined the Marine Corps six months after 9/11. He said he worries that the military is asking some Marines to take buyouts after 15 years, rather than the 20 years he hopes to serve.

He added that he has heard persuasive arguments from both candidates and has not made a final decision.

"I haven't really looked into the specifics, but I plan to before the election rolls around," he said.

Town near base is split

Outside the base gates, the town's citizens are split. In the courtyard of the 29 Palms Creative Center & Gallery, where military families come for art lessons, 79-year-old Art VanHofwegen let loose with an indictment of the president that could have come straight from talk radio.

"Obama hasn't done a lick of a good thing for me as far as I know in all these four years," said VanHofwegen, who was dropping off his metal sculptures. "If we keep him for another four years, this nation as we know it will be like those European nations."

VanHofwegen said he believes Obama will cut military spending, and that "if we don't stay strong we're going to get taken over by Russia or China."

Inside, where some of the artwork included coffee mugs adorned with peace signs, owner Gretchen Grunt voted for Obama in 2008 and plans to do so again.

"I'm going to vote Democratic because they're going to support the arts more," Grunt said. "I feel like it's kind of the lesser of the evils."

Grunt added that she is disappointed in "the whole government" now, a sentiment echoed by several residents who said they lack enthusiasm for either candidate.

At Luckie Park, a recreational complex near a housing development for military families, Jennifer Glover, 31, pushed her 2-year-old son, Ethan, in a jogging stroller. Glover lives on the base with her husband, a 12-year Marine veteran. She said they had watched the debates and that she already had voted by absentee ballot in her home county in North Carolina.

"I think a lot of people at this point feel like if they vote they're going to be voting for the lesser of two evils," Glover said. "I've heard from a lot of our friends that don't really feel one candidate is going to be better than the other."

The barrage of commercials and personal attacks has taken a toll, she said.

"I would rather just see some politicians come out and give the facts, because why should you have to have fact-checkers after every debate? Go out, say the truth."

Glover did not want to reveal how she voted, saying, "You never know who you're going to offend." But she said her decision came down to military issues espoused by one of the candidates.

"I think getting out of all the conflicts that we don't necessarily need to be in," she said. "We're not the world police."

"I understand that other countries need help, but that's not necessarily our job. And I think we've lost enough of our people trying to help those who don't want our help, obviously."

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